Steppe or Russian tortoises are often considered a good starter tortoise- small, cheap, and hardy. However, there are a few things a keeper needs to know about this species to keep them healthy and happy for a long time. Russians generally do best when they can be outside in a warm, dry summer, and be allowed to brumate (reptile form of hibernate) for several months a year.
The scientific name Testudo is Latin for tortoise, while horsfieldii honors an American naturalist- Thomas Horsfield. Besides Russian and steppe tortoise, it is also called Horsfield’s tortoise, the four-toed tortoise, the Afghan tortoise, and the central Asian tortoise. One of the more common names- Russian tortoise, is actually not a very good name for the species since it is found in other countries, so we will use steppe or Horsfield’s tortoise here. It was officially described by John Edward Gray in 1844.
Steppe tortoises are threatened and even endangered in some parts of their range due to habitat loss (mostly for grazing and agricultural uses), as well as being over-collected for folk medicine and as pets. They are often collected in huge numbers by locals who sell them cheaply to exporters. Thousands at a time are shipped under rather awful conditions. This is why adult steppe tortoises puchased at most pet shops are often stressed, dehydrated, and full of parasites. You should look for animals that were captive-bred by reputable breeders instead.
This is one of the smallest common pet tortoises, ranging from 13-20cm (5-8in) for males and 15-25cm (6-10in) for females. The shell is a flattened, nearly round oval with the center of each scute being dark red-brown to black, fading to tan, cream, or yellow at the seams (on both the carapace and plastron). There is no hinge on the plastron. The rear marginal are enlarged and often serrated. The body is yellowish-tan with heavy scales on the forelimbs. Leg and head scales are often a darker brown. Each foot has four strong claws, and there is a claw-like tip on the tail.
Males are generally smaller with larger, longer tails. The male’s plastron is not indented as in most other tortoises.
Range and habitat
Southeast Russia (from the Caspian Sea southward), Azerbaijan, southern Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, northeast Iran, Afghanistan, northern Pakistan, northwestern Baluchistan, northwestern China (Xinjiang) Typical habitats are steppes (dry, rocky, sparse grasslands), at elevations up to 2400. Most often found near water or greener vegetation.
In the wild, this species experiences short hot, dry summers and long cold winters. They hide much of the day, aestivate when food is scarce due to heat or drought, and brumate (reptile version of hibernation) for nine months out of the year. Most of the region only gets about 217-320mm (8.5-12.5in) of rain a year. Summer temperature averages range from 12C (53.5F) in the mountain areas to 17.7C (65F) at lower altitudes. The summer temperatures in the Kazakh Steppes in Kazakhstan, for example, can range from 13-42C (55-108F) in July, with an average high of 27c (81F) and a daily mean temp of 21C (70F). Long stretches of temperatures over 32C (90F) are common- but at least it is a dry heat! The January temps range from 4 to -52C (39 to -62F). The temperatures also vary by elevation and distance from the Mediterranean. (Climatically, the summers are similar to New Mexico and southwest Colorado.)
A typical burrow is built under a log or rock, in in the roots of a plant and consists of a small chamber about 30-50cm (12-20in) underground, with a tunnel ranging from 1-2m (3-7 feet) long. They are excellent climbers as well, scrabbling over rocks with ease. After a long brumation, they often eat mineral-rich soil and begin mating rituals.
Like many other tortoise species, steppe tortoises specialize in habitats where vegetation is too scarce or low in nutrients for most other animals. Photos of areas where most Testudo species are actually found usually show lots of rocky areas and bare soil with only patches of struggling plants.
Steppe tortoises take about ten years to reach maturity. Courtship begins after brumation. Males bob their heads and may bite at females to stop, then mount, them. Females generally are only mounted once or twice a season, and are stressed by repeated attempts so it is best to remove males after a while. Females begin to nest six to eight weeks after the end of brumation, then again about four weeks after that. Nests are fairly shallow, but well-camouflaged. They usually nest in the middle of a sunny day, even though the soil may still be cold. Clutches are generally one to four eggs but may have more.
Eggs can be incubated in a dry substrate at about 80% humidity and 30-32C (86-90F) in still air incubators. Hatching generally occurs in 62-77 days. Hatchlings may be left in the incubator on paper towels until the yolk is mostly absorbed.
There is a helpful article at the Tortoise Trust on this topic.
Being a smaller species, steppe tortoises do not take as much space as adults as many other species do, however they are an active species so need adequate room. Young tortoises may be kept in large tubs or aquaria. 1 to 2 adults would need at least a 5x3ft (1.5x1meter) tortoise table or similar space, with more space for additional animals. Again, they climb well and that needs to be factored in to the design. Males may fight so should usually be housed separately.
A deeper substrate is recommended to allow digging. A sand/soil/clay mix is often recommended. Artificial burrows can also be provided, but should be snug. The substrate should be kept dry.
Steppe tortoises do best in large, secure outdoor spaces. Since they dig and climb well, their housing needs a little special attention. Walls should be high (and they easily climb chain-link or wire fencing), and capped- especially in the corners. They will dig under any gaps at the bottom of the walls. The pen can be sparsely planted and must allow for digging. A shelter should be provided against rainy weather. A greenhouse or cold-frame may be helpful in cooler or wetter conditions. Males may fight so should be kept in very large spaces or separately.
For an interesting article on the subject, see the Tortoise Trust’s A Habitat for Russian Tortoises.
The overall temperatures should be about 30C (86F) during the day and cooler at night and in one hiding area- but as always- a good thermal gradient is recommended. Proper lighting would simulate sunlight and offer UVB. Moderate humidity (50%ish or so) helps prevent dehydration but the substrate should be kept dry.
A wide, shallow, easy-to-clean bowl of fresh water should always be provided. The bowl rim should be about level with the substrate.
The wild diet is almost totally plants that are greener in the early summer and dried later. Occasional insects, carrion, and feces are eaten. The natural diet is rich in calcium and fiber and low in protein and carbohydrates. In captivity, they should get a ‘weed-based’ diet. Garden plants, like grasses, dandelion, plantain, yarrow, etc. are a good foundation. ‘Free-range’ plants are a great option and encourage foraging behavior in the tortoise.
The diet can be supplemented with things like hay (such as is sold for horses or rabbits), greens, lettuces, cabbage, mulberry and similar leaves, squash, dandelion, and the like. Mineral supplements such as cuttlefish bones and occasional treats of berries and fruits with pits are helpful before and after brumation.
While some keepers prefer to not brumate their animals, or only brumate adults, there is little doubt that it is helpful for a longer, healthier life and more successful breeding, and can begin with the tortoise’s first winter. They begin to slow down in late August, probably triggered by shortening days. They begin to dig in, and can be difficult to find- especially if the soil closes back over them. When they begin to stay in burrows, they should be moved to a prepared hibernacula.
Typical hibernacula would be something like a plastic shoebox with lots of holes all around it. The tortoise is packed in the box in a suitable substrate, such as a mixture of leaves and mosses or wadded paper. The box is then kept in a refrigerator or similar at 5-6C (41-43F) at a humidity of about 30-40%. Check on them weekly. Adults may be put back outside in April, but young tortoises should be kept in until May. Warm soaks, mineral supplements, and fresh foods should be offered as they come out of brumation.
Brumating a tortoise, especially a steppe tortoise, outdoors, in a basement, etc. can be risky- too much moisture or variation in temperature can be fatal to the tortoise.
IMPORTANT: If you have not hibernated a tortoise before, consult an experienced keeper or read up on the topic. A good start is the Tortoise Trust article on Safer Hibernation.
- Steppe tortoises were considered a separate genus, Agrionemys, for a while, but since they interbreeds freely with other members of Testudo, it is no longer considered such by most researchers. As with so much in the field of animal names, this is still evolving.
- The first animal in deep space was a Russian tortoise, launched by the Russians in September 14, 1968.
- Steppe tortoises on Reptile Database, Wikipedia, the German Society for Herpetology and Herpetoculture, and Tortoise Trust
- Bonin, Franck and Bernard Deavaux, Alain Dupre, Peter C. H. Pritchard, Peter C. H. (translator). Turtles of the World. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006. ISBN 0801884969.
- Fife, Jerry D. Russian Tortoises in Captivity. ECO Publishing, 2013. ASIN B00BUTD0UC
- Franklin, Carl J. Turtles: An Extraordinary Natural History 245 Million Years in the Making Voyaguer Press, 2007. ISBN 0760329818.